A Female Sublimity

This is the last class-related post you’ll have to read. Thank you for hanging on, and here we go…

The feminine sublime “designates a position of facing the irreducible alterity of the terror instead of controlling the feeling of terror through material obstruction or mental distance.” –Jui-Ch’i Liu

No… No, no, no. There’s no place for gender in sublimity, just as there’s no place for gender in algebra. Any sort of argument to the contrary takes away, leaches from, distracts. Whenever we try to see something as profound as the sublime through some sort of filter like gender, we only see part of the whole, and this week’s reading took a frustrating turn because everything narrowed down; everything started to focus in on a little part instead of the whole and all of it was awash with human fallacy.

Let’s start with the quote. Just like any other argument, we’d need to asses Liu’s premises before we can figure out if her conclusion is valid, and that’s where things start to fall apart. Seriously, who the hell said that men control “the feeling of terror through material obstruction or mental distance”?  Burke, maybe? And if so, does just that one Irishman who died when this country was thirty years old get to decide what sublimity is for the rest of us? Is Liu honestly saying that there isn’t a woman out there who likes to put a blockade or two in between her mind and danger? Anyone who says “women do this, and men do that” is failing to see that humanity does something entirely different.

It’s super annoying. For this post, we were supposed to “reflect on gender and how it relates to the sublime,” and to that, I’d say that gender-based descriptions of the feeling are nothing more than subsets—little half-truths that don’t do anything other than keep us from looking higher because they distract from the thing that lives above masculine or feminine sublimity: holistic sublimity itself.

But you know what? It’s not Liu’s fault; she just took the bait, and I can’t blame her. Because when you think about it, it really was all those wig-wearing men from Western Europe who set us off on the wrong course with all their misogynistic idiocy. I’ve never liked Kant, and really, he’s to blame. Smart women like Liu can take only so much of that bullshit before the polarization pushes them to the other side, and then they start to see things as if there really were sides. There aren’t. Rage is rage. Woe is woe. And sublimity is sublimity, whether it’s felt by a man or a woman or a Yorkshire terrier. When we start to look at a gender’s take on some sort of emotion that is in and of itself a contradiction, we miss things. And this week, we missed things.

As to the photography in Liu’s essay, I’d argue that there’s just as much “mental distance” in Lee’s Dolphin Court as there was in Herbert Mason’s cathedral picture, and I hate to say it, but I think Liu cherry-picked a woman’s photography to prove a point. Yes, in that last horrid picture of the stacked corpses, Lee definitely faced “the irreducible alterity of the terror,” but so did the countless male photographers who also took pictures of bodies after and during WWII. There just isn’t much logic in the argument, regardless of how beautiful and intelligent it was, and I stick by my guns:

Sublimity persists in as many different ways as there are people who feel it, and it matters not if they’re men or women. Infinite, mind-blowing things happen all the time and everywhere, and if these things are described from a feminine or a masculine point of view, the describer has failed, and they’ve only told half the tale. Good writing, good art, good photography: these things need to be free and unfettered from gender, because if they aren’t, they’re trapped just below where they could be ultimately, and they fail to reach the potential of true sublimity. In the end, you need it all, positive and negative, distance and immersion. That’s where balanced contradiction comes from, and frankly, that’s the definition of sublimity.

On John Muir

Dear readers,

I’m sure these weeks have been confusing for you given that all this gobbledygook is aimed at literature you don’t have access to, but just to keep you interested, I’m going to fill you in on the vagaries of my class’s reading so you have a clue. Basically, we’re trying to study sublime writing so we can produce it, which is a shit-ton harder than it sounds. And the more and more we study it, I’m realizing that the art can be distilled down into a word formula, even though such a thing sounds sacrilegious on the surface, and I’m getting closer and closer to seeing the equation in its entirety.

This week, we read an essay by Christine Oravec written about John Muir’s writing which ultimately led to the preservation of the burgeoning National Parks System way back in the day, and Muir was able to turn people to his cause by capturing sublimity with his written word. His equation was as follows: take the immediate apprehension of a familiar sublime object (like a mountain), add a sense of overwhelming personal insignificance, couple this with the sense of spiritual exaltation, and boom, you’ve written a spell that’ll transport sublimity into the mind of your reader. And here we go…


Metal canoes do odd things in Alaskan rivers. The water is grey like flowing clay, and silver aluminum seems to disappear when it’s floating on top. It’s the silt that does this. It’s the fine rock that’s been ground to a powder by living glaciers, and it trickles down the hills until the water is inundated with it; if you fall in, your clothes take it all in and it feels like you’re wearing concrete. And it’s dangerous. It’ll make you heavy and cold and solid with weight, and you’ll sink to where you’ll stay. It’s like boating on top of death—a childhood game of hot-lava where the stakes are for keeps.

I was fourteen the last time I did it with a group of friends, and we were ill-equipped for the rapids we paddled through. There were nine canoes in total, but one of them flipped over (the one caring all the food for our trip), and the two teens inside washed up on an anchored piece of driftwood in the middle of an eddy. They stayed there for two days until they were rescued by a chartered boat—the kid from Poland tried to kill himself with bug spray because it seemed better than drowning, but that’s not where this is going.

The rest of us made it to a sandbar with a half-mile of rapids on each side. We were marooned. Or meatal canoes had fought the water with rigidity instead of bending like the sapling that survives a storm, and rivets had popped. More water was coming in than staying out and our choices turned from plural into singular: we’d have to stay where we were until someone found us. That “someone” turned out to be one of those double-bladed helicopters. It landed and hovered us back to safety—the crew gave us tuna and crackers which felt like a feast after two days’ worth of feeding on multiple vitamins, and the view below was indeed sublime because we would live now, but that’s not the moment in this trip I found to be transitional. I remember sitting in that helicopter, looking out the open door, protected from the raging white-noise by one of the headsets I’d only seen in movies, and thinking back to when I stood on the edge of that sandbar.

I was looking downstream. The river was huge and roaring, and just beyond the island that saved us, the water turned into something that shouldn’t be called a “river.” There were falls and waterlogged trees that’d been ripped from the ground by the rain-fattened flow, and there were rocks waiting to break things. It was all so huge, loud, final. I knew that a boat taken downstream would just be something ferrying me towards an end, but there’s always a chance, especially so if you’re young and invincible. I decided to give it three days, because three is a number we all seem to agree on. That’s how many pigs there were, that’s how many bears there were, that’s how many wishes you get. If that day came, I’d push off and see what happened.

Of course, it didn’t; that helicopter came one day before my deadline, and safety was found. But I remember standing there on the bank, little and young, the opposite of the nature around me, and thinking that somehow, it’s all come to this, whatever “this” was. And I’d found peace in that moment of acceptance, buffeted by the raging torrent on all sides, because there was nothing else to do.